Getting The End Of The World Right

The Arts


Post-apocalypse films, eh? Bit of a hiding to nothing, the end of the world, isn’t it? The collapse of civilisation, fighting for food, desert wastelands, lost cities, all life wiped out except a small band of bickering survivors – I nearly topped myself after ‘The Road’ and haven’t been able to watch ‘The Walking Dead’ because I know it will be a gory soap about angry gun-toting control freaks hurting the nice sympathetic victims.

There have been high water marks in the apocalypse genre; ’28 Days Later’ and its underrated sequel were terrific, as were ‘Children of Men’, ’13 Monkeys’, ‘Time of the Wolf’, ‘Blindness’ and ‘The Last Days’. There were low points too – the travesty of Will Smith’s remake of ‘I Am Legend’, and ‘World War Z’, in which the end of the world meant being trapped in Wales (at least they got that part right).

I was never a huge fan of the original Mad Max movies but one sequence stood out –  the last third of the second film, which effectively forms the basis for the entire running time of ‘Fury Road’, the fourquel – a giant race to the end of the track and back, pursued by screeching insane hordes. This time the apocalypse, the collapse of society and the rise of tribes have all been taken for granted, with water rationed out by a quasi-militia of sickly thugs, and a breeding programme of comely kidnapped specimens.

It helps that Tom Hardy is such a superb actor he can bring empathy to a near silent role, despite spending half the film with his head in a cage. It also helps that the women are not simply twentysomething screen candy but survive in all ages and types. Alex Garland’s much lower budgeted ‘Ex Machina’ was ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ for robots, a work of two halves that started intelligently and descended into a Playboy photo shoot, with the only finished robots being beautiful naked girls lasciviously photographed.


The biggest coup of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was making action sequences (ie the whole film) believable once more. Out went all that terrible weightless CGI, in came real-looking lumps of heavy machinery toppling over with horrendous force. The film will make it hard for anyone to ever over-rely on CGI again (even though directors do, far more than you ever realise – in the seemingly real cop drama ‘Marshland’ it turned out the backgrounds were nearly all green-screened composite shots) but perhaps they’ll be more circumspect about its use now.

Post-apocalypse scenarios are always far less interesting than the actual process of societal collapse, where there is at least hope. The problem for end of the world scenarios is balancing drama with veracity. ‘Interstellar’ gave its earliest stages of global crop destruction the ring of truth, then blotted its copybook with tesseract shenanigans and unlikely scenarios (a rogue NASA waiting for its billion-dollar program to be led by a farmer, appearing via the world’s most unusual job application form, dust on a bedroom floor).


But if ‘The Road’ best suggests the world’s end, we’re in trouble. The alternative is being stuck with ‘Tomorrowland’s wide-eyed children staring awestruck at wind farms. Suggested reading on the subject is the huge tome ‘World Gone Mad: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies’ by David J Moore (who is thorough and covers world cinema, but whose tastes are resolutely trashy).

I’ve always liked the odd way in which both Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham presented their doomsday scenarios (chatty, casual, largely through conversation), so here’s a question; who has written the best or most unusual apocalyptic fiction?

18 comments on “Getting The End Of The World Right”

  1. Jackie Hayles says:

    J G Ballard’s apocalyptic fiction focuses on the decline of small outposts of civilisation at a time – the apocalypse happens for those people whose worlds are upturned and for whom everything they clung to is rapidly disappearing. Whether it is in a gated community, a Drowned World, a grassy verge beneath a motorway or a high-rise microcosm, there is no doubt that the game is over and the only way forward leads back to the swamp.

  2. dave says:

    I would go for Stephen King’s best book ‘The Stand’, closely followed by the Justin Cronin trilogy ‘The Passage’, only two of which are thus far published.

    My kids would probably be voting for Hunger Games and Maze Runner, neither of which are actually bad reads.

  3. Paul says:

    ‘Second Ending’ by James White has one of the best artificial intelligence characters, which I came across looking for short ‘Sector General’ tales. I bought ‘The Last Gasp’ by Trevor Hoyle in a second hand bookshop years ago and I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a film, bearing in mind it’s ecology themed story.

  4. Vincent R Coffey says:


    My name is Vincent and I am a lurker!

    This is a wonderful blog. I have come to feel quite cheated if I do not get my fresh post every morning – the day is never quite as good if there is none. Thank you Mr. Fowler and all who contribute to a magnificent experience.

    I am an ex-pat Londoner, originally from that branch of Loughborough Park in East Brixton now known as Moorland Road, now living on Long Island, NY.

    On the question of who has written the best or most unusual apocalyptic fiction, I would like to nominate the recently published Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. I am down to my last hundred or so pages and I have enjoyed few such novels as much since my early years reveling in Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham, and including a strange tale I read at least half a century ago and that has left me with a lifelong terror of bridges – the Death Of Metal by Donald Suddaby. Seveneves is packed with, to me, convincing detail and many unexpected and delightful twists and turns.

    Although not fiction, it seems to me that many biographies and autobiographies that deal with the subject’s childhood in any depth may, in all fairness, be described as apocalyptic and the adult life post apocalyptic.

    Again, thank you for a magnificent blog.

  5. John Griffin says:

    Filmwise, I loved ‘On The Beach’, ‘Threads’ and ‘War Game’.
    JG Ballard gets my vote bookwise, and have an affection for the flawed ‘Riddley Walker’.

  6. admin says:

    Thanks for the apoca-choices – and can we all please welcome Vincent, ex-Lurker, now joining the fray here!

  7. Rob says:

    I have fond memories of John Christopher’s dystopian novels. Not so much his adult books ( Year Of The Comet, No Blade Of Grass etc ) as what would now be called his YA output.

    In particular, the Sword Of The Spirits trilogy is a gritty, semi-Arthurian take on a future UK split into feuding communities. Written in the ’60s it really hasn’t dated that much and incredibly some of its ideas don’t seem to have been copied by any of the “fantasy” over the last 50 years! Very surprised that this hasn’t been filmed yet..

  8. MartinO'London says:

    I have a soft spot for “The Day The Earth Caught Fire” (1961). Lots of external shots of London with witty and smart dialogue, and set in the Daily Express with various journalists playing parts.
    It’s in black and white, which nicely captures the dirty old London before all the buildings were cleaned.

    I especially like the bit where the main character (Edward Judd) is driving though London to get to his new love, and is let through a road-block by a young policeman (Michael Caine):

    Caine: ” … and stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there”
    Judd: “It always was, wasn’t it?”

    Was it?
    ( There’s a BFI restored print on YouTube: )

  9. Mike Cane says:

    Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. You’ll never be the same after it.

  10. Vivienne says:

    Although I try not to read in genres, I can see I am a bit behind with dystopia. I grew up with John Wyndham and agree that Ballard manages to capture the same ordinariness in the face of massive upheaval. I defy anyone to read The Drowned World and not have it stay with them. But thanks for all the new suggestions.

  11. snowy says:

    [Hello Vincent! Help yourself to a fluffy toffee⁽¹⁾ from the bag.]

    Some Post-A stories can be a bit of a [cheeky] cheat by authors. It allows them to ‘set their own rules’., thereby avoiding any bits of the ‘real world’ that would spoil the plot. Though one can see the attraction of having a completely clean sheet to start with.

    There are some very nice recommendations above, can I throw in a few more? [Now it’s got a bit film-y.]

    Some well known, some not so much, some good, some so-so. But tastes vary.

    ‘Delicatessen’, the tale of an odd collection of characters set in a post-apocalypse France. It’s a bad time to be a butcher in a world with no meat!

    ‘Le Dernier Combat’, opens with the main protagonist copulating with an inflatable doll, an unusual kick-off to a mainstream film perhaps, but it is French. For anybody subtitle-phobic, don’t worry it only has two words of dialogue in the entire 93 minutes.

    ‘A Boy and His Dog’, very bleak and very badly dated in attitudes. Only for the very, very keen or those whose love of Don Johnson knows no bounds.

    ‘Sexmission (AKA: Seksmisja)’, In 2044 men have become extinct, which comes as a surprise to Max and Albert who have just woken up from suspended animation. Their only choices are either death or surgical ‘adjustment’, to fit into the new society.

    ‘Hardware’, quirky British film, whose plot involves a destroyed autonomous battle robot rebuilding itself and then going a bit ‘kill-y’. Perhaps most/only notable for a cameo by Lemmy from Motörhead.

    ‘Doomsday’ including this is a bit of a cheat since the apocalypse is still on-going, just having a bit of a lull. But it is a rather fun film from Neil Marshall, [Dog Soldiers, The Descent]. Closer in tone to the former, it includes Sean Pertwee who it will come as no surprise doesn’t make it to the final reel, but he does go out in a delicious manner.

    (⁽¹⁾Though you might need to have ‘lurked’ for a long time to remember the reference!)

  12. Rob Mason says:

    Is that a small garden fork on the face of Tom Hardy.
    In a Welsh accent – ‘Here’s my prayer, get off the front of this car, remove garden trowel off my face, it will all be okay tomorrow.’

  13. Alan Morgan says:

    Wotcha Vincent 🙂

    Wyndham is the classic of the (cosy) catastrophe, and I regularly reread Triffids. You need something there to make it all dangerous, zombies still filling the boots of strange people who prepare for such end times now. Else you get the likes of The Survivors, where nice middle class people drive around looking for the farmers market.

    The mockumentary Brian Pern: A Life In Rock staged Day of the Triffids of course


  14. admin says:

    Wyndham is a strange writer – ‘The Kraken Wakes’ is a brilliantly odd tripartite novel with the first third seemingly largely about dinner parties and scriptwriting, and the husband and wife team jovially bickering, all the better to contrast with the shocking final third.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Please, can someone tell me the name of the book about post A young people who have telepathic abilities? They appear to be living somewhere on the Atlantic coast of Labrador and the society is agrarian and rather New England colony in morality. Any abnormalities must be rejected at birth – a natural decision, but difficult for parents involved. (Welcome, Vincent, always glad to hear a new voice.)

  16. Rob says:

    Helen – that’s another Wyndham novel – The Chrysalids…

  17. Mark says:

    William Hope Hodgson deserves a mention.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Rob.
    I would have mentioned A Canticle for Liebowitz if the author hadn’t written the appalling so-called sequel to it.

Comments are closed.